How to Ride Fauresmith… for the First-timer
Next week a horde of horse and riders will be setting off on a three-day ride totalling 201km… This is the notorious Fauresmith National ride – the highlight of the South African endurance calendar! Not too onerous as endurance rides go, and yet, so difficult to complete for many people. Is Fauresmith an elusive goal for you? Is this your first time attempting it?
As old hands in our Province we offer advice to the newbies on our teams every year. Tips on what to do and what not to do. Sometimes they take our advice and sometimes they ignore it, but all the riders end up wiser on Thursday afternoon than they were on Tuesday morning. There’s no replacement for experience!
Fauresmith is a unique event in endurance. It has challenges different from the ultra-distance rides; one-day 100 milers such as the fabled Hofmeyr. It has different challenges from the speedy outright races between elite Namibian and South African teams over 120km. It is entirely different from the happy-go-lucky 80 km pre-rides done by the majority of endurance riders who just take part for the sheer enjoyment.
There are factors that make Fauresmith mad and bad compared to your local club ride.
Firstly, the sheer numbers. There will be about 400 horses concentrated at this venue. Unlike shows, most of them will not be stowed away in the stables, rather, all of them will be under saddle or on the field preparing to go. Add to that hundreds of vehicles and thousands of people. It can get a bit out of hand.
Secondly, the excitement. For many riders, arriving at Fauresmith is the realisation of a dream. There is a sparkle in their eyes and they communicate this excitement to their horses, who are already amazed to see so many colourfully attired horses around them. Adrenaline courses through their veins.
Third, the horses are fit and fed to run fast. They are not easy to control.
Fourth, there are a lot of newbies every year. Some are relatively new in endurance and lacking in the level-headed common sense that only develops with experience of dealing with difficult situations. They often have a hard time, but can also create situations that are awkward for the horses and riders around them. Falls by inexperienced riders, tack malfunctions or breakages, can add extra complications as they must be helped.
Fifth, the terrain is tricky in the sense that there are many rocks and loose stones, eroded gullies, holes, fence posts. Fauresmith is not a race track, but the horses want to race.
Lastly, there are three days to get through. Multi-day races present added challenges created by the efforts of the previous days. Stiff muscles, lactic acid building up from riding too fast or not cooling down at the end of the day, fatigue, electrolyte loss or imbalance, incipient aches and pains, all contribute to making this a greater demand on technical know-how than a single day event.
Day One: TUESDAY
Have a plan. Never expect to ride each day at Fauresmith at a faster average speed than you have ever ridden your horse on a single 80. Oh, you think no-one would be so foolishly ambitious? You’d be surprised at how logic can escape some. Some have expected to do it, but it doesn’t work. Plan your ride at speeds your horse can easily achieve. It’s a longer distance and the rest at the end of each day does not fully recharge your horse’s energy levels. You have to ride so his strength lasts the full three days.
A good ride plan would start slow and pick up very gradually, through every day, and every consecutive day. The pattern of increasing speed in km/h would be something like this example:
Day one: 15, 16, 17
Day two: 16, 17, 18
Day three: 17, 19.
If you pitch it right for the ability of your horse, the last day will be the fastest.
FIRST LEG: Base to Metz
We always tell new riders that if they ride the first leg in under one hour they will not complete the ride. Only the elite competitive riders can do this and continue at that speed for three days. If you’re uncertain whether you are one of those elite riders, the answer is simple. YOU ARE NOT. They know who they are and so does everybody else!
The first part of the ride goes up a narrow path between rocks. Go up steadily, neither crowding the horse ahead of you nor holding up the queue behind you. If there are fast riders trying to pass, pull off the track and let them get ahead of you. Manners are very important in preventing horses kicking and playing up generally through irritation or frustration.
The first leg is the most crucial one in the whole ride. If you blow it, you will spend the rest of the ride paying for it, if you are still in the running at all. KEEP COOL. KEEP CONTROL. Your horse does not know how far he has to go. Horses don’t think like that. They feel fresh and pumped and want to run. It’s the rider’s job to control the pace. It may feel easier to give up and let the horse run, but you will regret it bitterly later. Keep the horse to the rate you planned whatever it takes. If you have to dismount at the water and let a faster group get ahead, do it. Wait for a group that are riding at your speed and stick with them.
If you ride with a heart monitor, all the horses start off very high pulses because they are excited. You need to keep an eye on this and need to see it settle down after a while to normal levels. Excitement alone will burn a lot of nervous energy, and you will need that energy tomorrow. Calm your horse, if you can! If you are lucky you will have friends to show you the ropes and ride with you. It helps hugely if your horse is with horses he knows and trusts.
It may still be very cold when you get to the first checkpoint. Few people will use water to cool the horses, the cold air will be enough. You will also need to cover the horse to prevent it getting chilled. Shivering pushes up the heart rate and you don’t want to fail the vet check because of that. Don’t neglect to eat and drink something yourself.
SECOND LEG: Metz to Grapfontein
Things will be easier from now on. The horse has blown off the worst of the steam, and will start settling down as the miles pass. This leg is longer and more technical over the stony tracks on the hills. Your horse should be warmed up nicely. Still keep the pace slower than the horse would like, you want to keep him breathing easy and heart rate low. If you ride with a heart monitor keep the pulse under 130 and you should be fine. There are big differences between horses and their hearts so you need to know where your horse is in his comfort zone. Listen to his breathing, if he is huffing and puffing like a train, you are burning too much energy and getting behind in oxygen supply. Slow down until breathing is easier. Check your heart rate monitor and note the pulse when he is running quietly.
Be careful of stumbling on stones and holes hidden in the grass. You don’t want your horse to go lame. Walk the horse up the steepest slope, either getting off if you are a heavy rider, on staying on top if you are small. Don’t waste energy by racing up the slope. Be conservative on this first day. Rather just enjoy the scenery! The same applies to the steep downhill. Walk the horse down. This will avoid the chance of a slip or a misstep. This is your first time at Fauresmith, you’re not going to win, so chill.
Remember to sit up straight and smile at the photographers who will be set up at various places beside the track. You’re going to enjoy looking at those pictures for years to come. You don’t want to record sloppy riding or a scowl for posterity!
Come into the checkpoint at a sensible speed so your horse’s pulse drops easily. Grapfontein is exposed and can have a freezing wind. Keep a sweat sheet on him to stop a chill while you wait for the vetting.
THIRD LEG: Grapfontein to Base
If you are through the vet check you are doing well. It’s a long wide road, but mostly downhill back to town. The day has usually warmed up by now and it will be a pleasant run home. Make sure your horse has a good drink or two on the way to rehydrate him. You can keep a steady canter on the gravel road. Once you reach the tar road, slacken the pace, maybe trot to give the horse time to clear lactic acid from his muscles. You will be glad tomorrow morning that you had this bit of sensible forethought.
Day Two: WEDNESDAY
FIRST LEG: Base to Grapfontein
While Day one is the most crucial day of Fauresmith, Day Two is usually the hardest. Muscles are a bit stiff and the fresh fizz of energy has burned off. For many horses this is the first time they are riding endurance on a second consecutive day. He will be surprised. He will be a little more reluctant to depart than he was yesterday. You will be doing the first day’s course in reverse. Trot along the tar road to give your horse time to loosen up. He will have some aches and twinges that will wear off as the blood gets going. He may have a higher heart rate even if he isn’t excited. It may be from discomfort of sore muscles, but it should wear off and the pulse should drop to normal levels within half an hour.
Some people like to canter uphill and walk the horses, and canter again, and walk, till they get to the top of the long hill. I prefer a steady trot rather than cantering and walking. By trotting you will get to the top not far behind the canterers, but your horse will in much better shape than theirs. It is not far from the top of the hill to the checkpoint, and if the horse has been puffing up the hill, his pulse will be high at the vet check. Keep an eye on the heart monitor. See how easily it shoots up on the hills. Trot steadily up the hill, then you can canter slowly downhill into the vet check and still have a good pulse when you come in.
Keep that sweat sheet handy for the icy wind. Any lameness problems that may have started yesterday, but didn’t show up, are likely to show up at this check. Many riders will be disappointed to be vetted out lame, but that is to protect the horse from doing itself more damage. The terrain on the course is very tricky, it’s easy to twist a pastern on the loose stones, and it doesn’t always show up immediately. However, if you are in good shape and trotting sound, you will be off again and nearly half way!
SECOND LEG: Grapfontein to Metz
Over the hills again. Look out for the loose stones, ride carefully. You can go a little faster on this leg than you did yesterday (assuming you rode according to plan then). On the level tracks you can start picking up the canter speed. If the horse has good energy, you must have done something right. If the horse is tired, don’t despair. Ride him where he is comfortable, he may just be feeling mentally down temporarily. He may perk up when he turns home.
THIRD LEG: Metz to Base
For those who rode the first day too fast, the wheels may start coming off now. Some horses will be eager to go home, while others will be flagging as their energy runs out. Hang in there, nurse your tired horse along if you must, make sure he drinks at the troughs and wet him to cool him down if he is hot and dry.
If your horse still feels good, keep up a good steady canter, but slack off a bit on the uphill – there is still one more day to come. Be careful coming down the stony pathway. Tired legs are more likely to step wrong and pull a muscle or a ligament. Go faster on the straight easy bits, but really carefully on the tricky parts. It should be easy to control your horse’s speed now.
If you pass the vet at the end of Day Two, your chances of completing the whole ride are really good! Any latent problems would have shown by now, and the last day is the shortest distance too. Looking good!
Day Three: THURSDAY
FIRST LEG: Base to Sandymount
The first stretch is a long gradual uphill drag along the verge of the tar road. It’s uninspiring and the stones are sharp. Stick it out. You will eventually turn left onto the gravel road and things get better. By now you will be riding with what you have left in the tank. It could be a horse still energetic, but more often it is a tiring horse. Stick with a group if that is the case. Horses love company and will take heart from having friends around.
When you are through this checkpoint, there is only one more to go!
FINAL LEG: Sandymount back to Base
Whoohoo! Homeward bound. Riding out on the last leg of Fauresmith gives you a good feeling. Looking forward to the end, looking forward to achieving that goal.
One more steep uphill to take easy. The horses know they are going home now and should start to perk up. The farm tracks are deeply rutted. Don’t blow it now, though the temptation to race home is strong. Keep a good pace, but be sensible. You may be privileged to be among friends, chatting and laughing as you ride along happily, or if you are more like me, you may have the inexpressible joy of being alone on a strong horse going home.
Take the steep path downhill carefully one last time, as you hit the dusty footpaths at the bottom you may hear the sounds of the ride base drifting on the wind. Just a few more dips and a gully and across the railway line and there you are. Canter in around the track to the traditional sounds of Chariots of Fire.
I trust you will pass the final vet check. You will be moved as your friends and family are happy with you, and you will love your horse for taking you all the way. How could it be otherwise?
Laura & Francois Seegers are the founders and owners of the Perseverance stud, and are pioneers in barefoot endurance in southern Africa.
Laura has been competing in endurance for over 25 years, with 10,000 km under her belt and her Springbok colours. Laura rode PSV Jedi, one of the stud’s top horses, for the SA National team at the 2011 South African International Challenge in Limpopo and placed 8th. They followed this up by placing 5th at the 3-day Fauresmith 201km Nationals, also for the SA team. Jedi is the first barefoot horse to be selected to compete for this country.
Francois has over 25 years of experience in endurance riding, and has clocked up 8,000 km in endurance rides. He obtained his South African National colours on Alpha, the first horse bred by the stud. Francois was the leading senior South African endurance rider on the FEI World Rankings earlier this year.